Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan

By Ali Karim
This post is part of a series called Silk Road Tajikistan Sept-Oct 2019
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Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan; Sept 2019

After the cold night in the yurt at Lenin peak, we awoke in our yurt, did our business, had a quick breakfast, and left to drive onto Murghab in Tajikistan.

Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Breakfast at Lenin Peak Yurt Camp; hot tea, bread and jams.
Breakfast at Lenin Peak Yurt Camp; hot tea, bread and jams.

We did not have a very comfortable night, because it got cold at night outside (-10C), and our heater stove had run out of fuel in the night, meaning it got cold inside the yurt. It was also our first day at this high altitude of 12,000ft, low oxygen environment, and we were trying to fight off the altitude sickness and we were not used to the cot-beds. Not complaining, as we did this out of our choice, and the experience was well worth it; sleeping in a yurt under the massive Lenin Peak. I try to highlight all experiences; good and bad 🙂

Information
Everyone to get accustomed to the high altitude for a day or two which will help to counter the low oxygen levels and high altitude sikness.

We said goodbye to the other patrons, and drove the 25kms dirt track back to Sary Mogul, the nearest village.

Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Goodbye, Lenin Peak and Yurt Camp. Beautiful layers of reflections in Turpal kul lake….
Goodbye, Lenin Peak and Yurt Camp. Beautiful layers of reflections in Turpal kul lake….
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Alay-Pamir range
Alay-Pamir range
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Sary Mogul village, at the foothills of the Alay mountains
Sary Mogul village, at the foothills of the Alay mountains
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Morning rush hour in Sary Mogul
Morning rush hour in Sary Mogul
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Youngsters enjoying the morning sun, and checking out us visitors
Youngsters enjoying the morning sun, and checking out us visitors

At Sary Mogul, Ahmedali drove us to Erali’s mother-in-law’s house. Apparently, Erali’s wife’s mother lives here, and Erali’s wife, Aitolkun, had brought their daughter, Alia, to visit grandmother.

Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Aitolkun and Alia, Erali’s wife and daughter
Aitolkun and Alia, Erali’s wife and daughter

Aitolkun’s mother had laid out a lavish breakfast for us, complete with Sher chai 🙂

Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan 2nd Breakfast with Sherali, Alia, Ahmedali, Grandma and Aitolkun (left to right)
2nd Breakfast with Sherali, Alia, Ahmedali, Grandma and Aitolkun (left to right)

After this second breakfast and spending some time with Aitolkun (who spoke good English), we said our goodbyes, and left to go back to Sary Tosh, from where we would head into Tajikistan. We drove almost all the way back to Sary Tosh, and just before the town, we turned right, and headed south towards Tajikistan.

Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Road south from Sary Tosh to Tajikistan, along the Pamir highway. Pamir mountains in the distance
Road south from Sary Tosh to Tajikistan, along the Pamir highway. Pamir mountains in the distance

We soon arrived at the Kyrgyzstan border post

Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Kyrgyz border immigration and customs post before leaving Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyz border immigration and customs post before leaving Kyrgyzstan

Ahmedali and Sherali went inside the border post, and took care of all formalities and we were soon on our way. Turns out, there is a 25km distance from here to the Tajikistan border post; effectively creating a no-man’s land buffer zone between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Since we had been at this high altitude, we had not seen any trees, as we were above the tree line. And the vegetation was mostly scrub. Some images below, in this no-man’s land

Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Wide flood plain for when the snow melt is at its max. Locals use this area for their herds
Wide flood plain for when the snow melt is at its max. Locals use this area for their herds
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan U-shaped glacial valleys in the Pamir mountains, along this Pamir highway. The Pamir mountains are often referred to as the Roof of the World
U-shaped glacial valleys in the Pamir mountains, along this Pamir highway. The Pamir mountains are often referred to as the Roof of the World
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Glacial melt river from the snow melt. Note the different colors of the land
Glacial melt river from the snow melt. Note the different colors of the land
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan We soon reached the sign for Kyzl Art (Red Pass), which is the actual border at 4,282m or 14,048ft
We soon reached the sign for Kyzl Art (Red Pass), which is the actual border at 4,282m or 14,048ft
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Still climbing up to the actual border; along this Pamir Highway. Note the lack of vegetation
Still climbing up to the actual border; along this Pamir Highway. Note the lack of vegetation and trees; as we were well above the tree line
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Finally, the marker for the actual physical border at Kyzl Art (Red Pass).
Finally, the marker for the actual physical border at Kyzl Art (Red Pass).

Views of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan at Kyzl Art

This Kyzl Art (Red Pass) was at 14,048ft, which was still 1,300ft ft below the Khunjerab Pass between China and Pakistan at 15,397 feet

Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan View of Tajikistan from Kyzl Art. Note again, the different colors of the lands
View of Tajikistan from Kyzl Art. Note again, the different colors of the lands

About a mile after this pass, we reached the Tajik border post, where Ahmedali took care of the formalities (immigration and customs (currency, food, weapons, alcohol/tobacco, flora/fauna)). We had gotten our visa’s for Tajikistan for $25 each online beforehand, with an additional $50 each for entering the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) of Tajikistan; which we were in now. At the very last customs stop before the final gate, a guard called out and asked where we had got the hat (the topi that Alifbek had gifted me in Osh, that I had left visible on our vehicle dashboard). I told him it was from the Ismaili Khalifa in Osh, and the guard, who turned out to be an Ismaili, had recognized the distinctive Pamiri hat, and welcomed us to Tajikistan 🙂 . Nice start to Tajikistan.

A little bit about Tajikistan. The territory that now constitutes Tajikistan was previously home to several ancient cultures, starting with the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, and was later home to kingdoms ruled by numerous empires and dynasties, including the Achaemenid Empire, Alexander the Great, Sasanian Empire, Hephthalite Empire, Tibetan empire, Chinese Empire, Samanid Empire, Mongol Empire, Timurid dynasty, the Khanate of Bukhara, the Russian Empire, and subsequently the Soviet Union. Within the Soviet Union, the country’s modern borders were drawn when it was part of Uzbekistan as an autonomous republic before becoming a full-fledged Soviet republic in 1929.

History
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan became an independent Republic; and almost immediately, collapsed into a 5yr civil war between multiple factions over economic hardships, and communal rivalries/differences. When the civil war broke out in 1992, the local government in Gorno-Badakhshan declared independence from the Republic of Tajikistan. During the civil war, many Pamiris were targeted for killing by rival groups and Gorno-Badakhshan became a bastion for the opposition. Later the Gorno-Badakhshan government backed down from its calls for independence and remained an autonomous region (GBAO), as it does today, within Tajikistan.

In 2011, Tajikistan ratified a 1999 deal to cede 1,000 sq km (390 sq mi) of land in the Pamir Mountains to China, ending a 130-year dispute, and the relinquishing of China’s claims to over 28,000 sq km (11,000 sq mi) of Tajikistan territory. In 2012, the region saw a series of clashes between the Tajik military and militants loyal to former warlord Tolib Ayombekov after the latter was accused of murdering a Tajik general, and of drug trading. So a tumultuous history in GBAO.

The population of Tajikistan is just under 10M and 98% are Muslims, mostly Sunni Muslims. The GBAO region covers all the eastern part of Tajikistan, and borders the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China in the east, the Badakhshan Province of Afghanistan in the south, and Osh Region of Kyrgyzstan in the north. The region is mostly mountainous, the Pamir mountains which are known as the roof of the world, and three of the five 7,000 meter summits in formerly Soviet Central Asia are located here, including Ismoil Somoni Peak (formerly Communism Peak, and, before that, Stalin Peak; 7,495 m), Ibn Sina Peak (formerly Lenin Peak, and still known by that name on its Kyrgyz flank; 7,134 m), on the border with Kyrgyzstan, and Peak Korzhenevskaya (7,105 m). GBAO makes up 45% of the land mass of Tajikistan, but has only 3% (or roughly 300,000) of its population living here; they are mostly Pamiris, as the Ismaili’s are known here; though there is a decent size Kyrgyz population, especially closer to the Kyrgyz border that we had just crossed.

Three major routes of the Silk Roads ran through present day Tajikistan. These ancient routes were mentioned in contemporary Persian, Greek, Chinese and Arabic sources which highlighted Tajik contributions to the commerce and culture of the time, especially between the 5th and 12th centuries. The first route was the Sogdian, or North route between Samarkand (UZ) and Kashgar (CN); the second one was Karategin route between Termez (UZ) and Kashgar (CN) and the third one was Pamir route linking Balkh (Afghanistan) and Tashkurgan (CN).

We were now in GBAO Tajikistan, and the altitude was about 4,200m (or 13,800ft) consistently. The region was arid, almost completely devoid of vegetation; a high altitude desert, as this area was consistently above the tree line. The word “Pomir” is supposed to mean “the roof of the world” though some claim it means “feet of the sun”. Some images below of the Pamirs in Tajikistan

Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Border fence erected by the Soviets, to create a buffer zone with China, which is on the other side of these Pamir mountains
Border fence erected by the Soviets, to create a buffer zone with China, which is on the other side of these Pamir mountains

Views of the landscape on the Pamir mountains

Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Pamir Highway: roads deteriorated in the Pamir mountains, and we saw few other vehicles
Pamir Highway: roads deteriorated in the Pamir mountains, and we saw few other vehicles

We soon arrived at Karakul (Kyrgyz for Black Lake) Lake, not to be confused with the Karakul Lake in Xinjiang, China, both are high altitude basin lakes, meaning they are in a basin, and have no outlet. They get filled from snow melt, and evaporation leaves behind salt and mineral deposits; the lakes getting saltier each year.

Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Descent to beautiful Karakul Lake
Descent to beautiful Karakul Lake

Views of Karakul Lake

Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Karakul lake; note the white salt/mineral deposits on the edge
Karakul lake; note the white salt/mineral deposits on the edge
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Karakul town
Karakul town

We soon arrived at the small town of Karakul, which was a collection of small houses on the edge of the lake; not sure what the sustenance of the village was, as the lake has little life, and the land is a high altitude highland desert. The wooden poles once used to carry electricity and telephones wires to the community, built in the Soviet days, but now unused and in a state of disrepair. We stopped here for lunch at a home stay.

 

Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Lunch was at this homestay (left) in Karakul; outhouse bathrooms on the right
Lunch was at this homestay (left) in Karakul; outhouse bathrooms on the right
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Basic hole in the ground squat toilet; this time with no roof; wonder what happens in the winter?
Basic hole in the ground squat toilet; this time with no roof; wonder what happens in the winter?
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Outdoor tandoor where bread is baked
Outdoor tandoor where bread is baked

Since there were no trees here and the electricity supply was no longer working, I asked what they used for heating/cooking fuel.

Information
Since there are no trees scrub is used for cooking

I was shown this kind of scrub below, which I later researched to be Teresken. Unfortunately, this scrub takes a long time to mature, and with the lack of electricity and trees, this scrub is being “harvested” to the extent that it is becoming scarcer and scarcer over time. Most unfortunate.

Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Teresken scrub used for heating and cooking fuel
Teresken scrub used for heating and cooking fuel

After lunch, we said our goodbye’s and left Karakul and started driving towards Murghab, our first overnight in Tajikistan. Some scenes along the way

Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Rudimentary summer housing for the nomad families & their livestock
Rudimentary summer housing for the nomad families & their livestock
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Interesting Pamir landscapes
Interesting Pamir landscapes
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Heading to Akbaital (white horse) Pass at 4,655m or 15,272ft in the Pamir mountains; Roof of the World
Heading to Akbaital (white horse) Pass at 4,655m or 15,272ft in the Pamir mountains; Roof of the World
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Beautiful landscape, the river giving the opportunity for some food for the livestock
Beautiful landscape, the river giving the opportunity for some food for the livestock

View at Akbaital (white horse) Pass

Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Pamir’s and more unused electricity/telephone poles
Pamir’s and more unused electricity/telephone poles
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan This used to be a Caravanserai, in the late 1800’s
This used to be a Caravanserai, in the late 1800’s
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Welcome to Murghab
Welcome to Murghab

We soon arrived at Murghab, from the Persian word margh-ab meaning “prairie river”. Murghab is the capital of Murghob District in the Pamir Mountains of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, Tajikistan. With a population of 4,000, Murghab is about the only significant town in the eastern half of Gorno-Badakhshan Pamir mountains. It is the highest town in Tajikistan at 3,650m or approx. 12,000ft. elevation. The population is 85% Kyrgyz (due to closeness to Kyrgyzstan) and 15% Pamiri (Ismaili’s). We drove to the family’s guest house (Erali’s family) where Sherali, Ahmedali and the parents live. Ahmadali and Sherali were all glad to be home with their families 🙂 . Accommodations were basic but decent, and they did have the luxury of an indoor western flush toilet, and hot showers 🙂 ; oh how we take these things for granted in the western world 🙂

Our trip so far

Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Krygyz travel
Krygyz travel
Silk Road 18: Murghab, Tajikistan Tajikistan till Murghab
Tajikistan till Murghab

Next, more on Murghab, and then onto Alichur and beyond.